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Your Favorite 'Natural' Brands May Not Be What They Seem

organic, naturalBurt’s Bees lip balm was originally sold at independently owned health food stores. But more recently, Burt's Bees products have appeared everywhere -- in grocery stores, drug stores, and big-box stores like Target and Wal-Mart. That’s because Burt's Bees is now owned by Clorox, a massive corporation that has historically cared very little about the environment.

Many of the products you may trust and respect for their independence and social responsibility are now owned by big corporations that are going out of their way to hide their link to the small, socially responsible brands.

Tom's of Maine is owned by Colgate-Palmolive, a massive company with a revenue of approximately $11.4 billion. Danone, the French conglomerate which also owns Brown Cow, has acquired a majority holding in Stoneyfield -- the same Danone that had to recall large quantities of its yogurt in 2007 after it was found to contain unsafe levels of dioxins. Horizon Organic milk was bought out by the largest dairy company in the U.S., Dean Foods, in 2005.

Odwalla is now owned by Coca-Cola. Almost as soon as Coca-Cola bought the company, it stopped selling the fresh-squeezed OJ that had made Odwalla famous and popular -- fresh squeezed can't last the days and weeks the juices are now in transit or on the shelf. Pepsi bought Naked Juice in 2006, in order to compete with Odwalla. Smuckers grabbed several juice mainstays from the health food store shelves: After The Fall, R.W. Knudsen and Santa Cruz Organic.

Kashi cereals was bought in July 2000 by Kellogg's, the 12th-largest company in North American food sales (but if you look at a box of Kashi's "Go Lean Crunch", for example, you will find not one mention of the fact that Kellogg's owns them.) Kraft Foods bought the natural cereal maker Back to Nature. Kraft is a subsidiary of Altria, which also owns Philip Morris, one of the world's largest producers of cigarettes.

General Mills owns Cascadian Farm. Barbara's Bakery is owned by Weetabix, the leading British cereal company. Health Valley and Arrowhead Mills are owned by Hain Celestial Group, a natural food company traded on the NASDAQ, with H.J. Heinz owning 16 percent of the company.

Green and Black's organic chocolate was taken over in 2005 by Schweppes, the 10th-largest company in North American packaged-food sales. Dagoba Chocolate is actually owned by Hershey Foods.

Marketing strategies have been fooling you, convincing you to trust that the niche brands continue to be small, environmentally conscious businesses with ecologically sound practices. In fact, they are frequently cogs in the giant corporate wheel. It is time to question how much the ownership and neglectful marketing of these "pseudo" responsible brands warrant crossing them off your shopping list. And it is time to find products more in tune with your values -- at least until they, too, get bought out by a large conglomerate.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

For those of you still under the assumption that your Horizon organic milk, your Kashi crackers or your Green and Black’s chocolate was being churned out by a small farm or mom-and-pop shop nestled in a pristine valley, brace yourself for disappointment.

The reality is that many of your favorite organic products are owned and operated by the same corporations that make the worst kinds of highly processed junk foods on the market -- soda, potato chips, sugary cereals, candy, etc.

Unfortunately, when multinational corporations create or purchase these natural health companies, they are looking to maximize their profits by turning out the largest amount of product for the least expense. And,  that frequently means sacrificing some ethics and skimping on quality.

And what you, the consumer, are left with is the misguided impression that you’re spending your hard-earned money on a product that adheres to a certain set of values, which have likely long since perished in the wake of corporate strategies.

The Power of an Idea

On the positive side, this trend is a clear sign that when you speak with your pocketbook and start demanding healthier food choices, America’s largest corporations have no practical economic choice but to respond.

With the involvement of large corporations, organic food has turned into a $16-billion business, with sales growing by as much as 20 percent per year. What this means for much of America is access to more organic foods at lower prices – which is a great thing.

 Companies, eager to gain market share in the natural foods movement have begun acquiring and mass-producing “organic” foods which has resulted in a slow but noticeable deterioration of the meaning and health benefits upon which the organic label was founded.

So whereas many people are now getting the core message that organic is far healthier for you, they don’t stop long enough to make a distinction between raw organic food and processed food that contains organic ingredients. It’s important to realize that organic versions of junk food are STILL just as detrimental to your health as their original counterparts. 

Additionally, a significant element of the organic ideal is environmental sustainability and protection, but at least one study has found that the transportation of organic produce causes an environmental impact large enough to cancel out any of its environmental benefits.

Who Owns Your Favorite Organic Brand?

Phil Howard, an assistant professor of Community, Agriculture, and Recreation and Resource studies at Michigan State University, put together this revealing chart below, which shows the significant acquisitions and introductions of organic brands by major food corporations, as of January 2008.

The unfortunate result of all this big business wheeling and dealing in organics, and acquiring small but popular organic brands is that you now have to be very wary when you see the term “organic,” as it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s any better for either you or the environment.

There’s Something Even Better Than Organic

Personally, I’m not surprised at this development; it was bound to happen. Food companies, as any other primarily profit-driven company, would not let a swelling market niche go untapped.  

That doesn’t mean you have to buy into the hype, however. You still have the power to demand the real deal, and the fact of the matter is; true organic IS better. Both for you and for the environment. 

It’s mainly a matter of knowing where to find locally harvested organic foods and buying from sources you want to see thrive. You also want to read the packaged food labels and not simply take the organic label at face value.  It’s sad to say but the organic label has become virtually meaningless as a sign of quality.

Depending on where you live, finding a local farmer or food coop may seem unrealistic, but just as demand drove the rise of organic, it is driving the demand for locally grown foods. You can peruse this list of sustainable agriculture options to find like-minded people in your area who will know how you can connect with local food producers.

Also be sure to take advantage of farmer’s markets and roadside stands now as spring and summer approaches.

+ Sources and References